Planting The Right Seeds

seed

Zain Ashraf Mughal is a young, passionate Pakistani entrepreneur who has won accolades around the world for his efforts for poverty alleviation in the country. Sehrish Khan talks to Zain about his work, his experiences and the education needed to successfully walk the path of entrepreneurship.

 

You have been featured in Forbes 30 under 30 list of Social Entrepreneur for 2019 in Asia. What inspired you to set off on the journey of entrepreneurship?

I was struck by the idea that despite Pakistanis giving large sums of charity, poverty is still deeply embedded in our society. With 39% of Pakistan’s population living in extreme poverty, simple charity is just not effective in dealing with the massive issue. I started Seed Out with the desire to reinvent charity in Pakistan, thus embarking upon the idea of converting funds solicited for charity into sustainable income generating activities for the poor and help bring about prosperity in their lives. The main behind concept behind Seed Out was to boost the confidence of the beneficiaries and empower them by encouraging them to utilize their skills as well as intellect to prosper, rather than rely on charity year after year.  

 

Tells us about where you studied and the work that you do?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from University of Miami, Florida, where I specialized in entrepreneurship. The idea of Seed Out was also conceived while I was pursuing my studies and I embarked on this journey to create a just and equal society to the best of my efforts. After two years of hard work, I launched Seed Out in 2013, based on the concept of self-reliance and entrepreneurship which I think is inherent to the preservation of human dignity. Apart from the philanthropic work, I also hold a directorial position at the Super Asia Group, Pakistan’s leading household appliances manufacturer, and the fast-food chain Hardee’s. Furthermore, my interest in technology has led me to launch software’s such as Eccountant – a cloud based accounting software aimed at dealing with organizations financial needs But I hold Seed Out the closest to my heart. 

 

Did you want to study entrepreneurship all along or was it a decision you made during your bachelors?

Having been born in a family of business entrepreneurs, I was quite passionate about entrepreneurship, both as an activity and as a subject since I was young. At university, I was naturally inclined to the subject.

 

Is it necessary to have a degree in entrepreneurship to be an entrepreneur?

An academic degree in entrepreneurship is definitely beneficial. It is a great journey to undertake learning through exposure to multidisciplinary fields of education and understanding the best practices put in place by some of the most innovative entrepreneurs. However, it is not a necessary requirement to become an entrepreneur. What one truly needs to become an entrepreneur is passion, dedication and an idea. The journey to establish an enterprise is not an easy one. It has many ups and downs but you must be willing to learn and dedicated to seeing your idea come to fruition. There are also so many free resources on the internet these days where one can learn from. 

 

You are a philanthropist and entrepreneur, in your opinion what is the scope of entrepreneurship in Pakistan?

Pakistan is a country which has a massive potential. We have such brilliant and talented resources which if capitalized on can truly bring about great changes. With such a huge population of youth in the country, we are in prime position to take some risks and embark on new ventures. However, enthusiasts lack support from relevant systems. We need more relaxed state polices, more incentives and more awareness regarding opportunities that entrepreneurs can explore. 

 

What motivated you to start “Seed Out”? What does the organization do?

My main motivation lay in my vision to see a poverty-free Pakistan. Thus I established Seed Out, a not-for-profit crowd funding platform that is working to end poverty by establishing micro-entrepreneurs through interest-free micro financing. It was established in 2013 as the first interest-free crowd funding platform in Pakistan. This was a milestone achievement because for the very first time, borrowers in least underdeveloped areas of Pakistan were directly connected to donors worldwide. Borrower profiles are posted on the website which gives them a voice and this establishes a direct human connection between the donor and the beneficiary. Once a donor makes a donation to support an entrepreneur they also receive their contact details and GPS location. As such, they can also call or even visit the beneficiary helping them connect with them on a deeper level.  Seed Out was established keeping the global goals of poverty alleviation, decent work and economic growth in mind. In pursuit of its goals, Seed Out has been providing interest-free, in-kind loans to the most deserving individuals who live below the poverty line. The organization does not give out cash but instead sets up a small scale business for the borrower in order to ensure optimum utilization of funds. 

Along with this, a skills development and capacity building program equips the entrepreneur to successfully run the business. As the business thrives, borrowers are able to repay Seed Out through easy installments. The repayment becomes part of Seed Out’s revolving fund where it is utilized to fund more businesses. To further its human development agenda, Seed Out requires beneficiaries to send at least two children to school. Seed Out also provides free health care and tele-health services to its beneficiaries and requires them to maintain a good standard of hygiene at their homes. 

 

What social problems have you identified and how is your NGO responding to them?

One of the major hurdles faced in the alleviation of poverty is the lack of sustainable income sources for the poor. This is due to a variety of reasons which range from scarcity in the availability of jobs to lack of access to low-cost capital. In Pakistan many individuals actively want to start businesses but their idea seldom materializes because of the general lack of access to low cost capital. The financial inclusion ratio in Pakistan stands at less than 15%. The high interest rates charged by banks and even higher by informal money lenders are a major deterrent to entrepreneurship.  The main mission of Seed Out is to provide quality microfinance services at no cost to the borrowers in an attempt to alleviate poverty. My aim is to use it as a foundation for building an equitable and just society via providing financial services to all. 

 

Being an enthusiastic advocate of poverty alleviation, how is your NGO helping in terms of micro-financing to empower people attain economic sustainability?

Seed Out strives very hard to provide the individuals it works with a true chance to change their lives and aims to deliver its services in the most impactful and sustainable manner. Seed Out’s average loan size is bigger as compared to other microfinance institutions, since it believes in substantially investing in one individual rather than raising numbers by handing out smaller loans. Small loans are not as useful for establishing thriving business and hence prove unsustainable. Seed Out has also introduced cashless loans. It provides help in the form of assets/equipment necessary for the business. This is done in order to ensure that the amount is used for intended purpose of income generation only. Furthermore, Seed Out does not charge interest from the beneficiaries in order to ease the burden of loan repayment. Our micro-entrepreneurs have seen a substantial improvement, on both the social and economic fronts. Amongst our beneficiaries we have women who were on the verge of destitution and young differently-abled individuals who had almost given up on life. Seed Out has provided these individuals with a new ray of hope in their lives and equipped them with the skills and assets required for them to set up sustainable income streams and live their lives with dignity, as is their right. 

 

What’s your most successful program and why? Please tell us how your organization’s work makes an impact on society.

Seed Out is one of the first NGOs in Pakistan to successfully integrate technology with development. Seed Out’s most unique aspect stands clear in the development of its extremely sophisticated crowd funding platform and a cloud based backend management portal, which not only is Seed Out’s core strength, but has attracted interest from other leading nonprofit organizations as well.  Seed Out’s crowd-funding portal engages donors from different locations and links them to worthy beneficiaries thereby allowing their funding process to be clean, transparent and credible. Donors receive live updates on progress and the impact created. This way Seed Out allows for hundreds of marginalized, neglected and oppressed lives to be empowered while donors have access to a more transparent, verifiable and tangible system. As a result, Seed Out has been able to raise over 710 entrepreneurs since its inception in 2013, thereby helping to lift around 3,525 people out of poverty, as an entrepreneur not only becomes self-sufficient, but also uplifts his household. Furthermore, as a part of its educational policy Seed Out has also sent more than 2,115 children to school.

 

Is there anything that you wish more people knew about your organization or the issues you are trying to solve?

A donation to Seed Out is a donation for life. Unlike other NGOs or non-profits your contribution to Seed Out does not only change the life of one individual but many. Once a donor has made a donation to assist an entrepreneur to start his business, all loan recoveries are made part of a fund which is used to further raise more entrepreneurs. Seed Out, therefore, is a revolving fund that is self-sustaining and where 100% of the principal recovery is ploughed back, enabling entrepreneurs to create more entrepreneurs. Therefore, a single donation of PKR 85,000 (average loan size) will not only raise 1 entrepreneur, it will raise approximately 15 entrepreneurs’ in 10 years.

 

Who are the NGOs in the same space or in general whom you consider as role models or benchmarks?

There are so many passionate individuals working so hard to bring about change in our society that it is difficult to name only a few. One of the organizations which I truly admire is an international non-profit called Kiva aiming for financial inclusion of under deserved communities. They work in over 78 countries around the world and their model for online lending is truly admirable. With currently over 3.3 million borrowers Kiva is definitely a role model for the type of Impact I envision for Seed Out. 

 

What was the most challenging problem you faced in the leadership and management of your NGO and how did you overcome that?

One of the biggest challenges I faced during management of Seed Out was maintain service quality and efficiency during expansion. As Seed Out opened new branches across Pakistan I wanted to ensure that field operations across the country were performed with consistency and effectiveness. Seed Out has many different layers of operations and only when they work in harmony can we truly achieve the mission that we set out with. This is where the technology that Seed Out has developed truly comes into play. Our system allows for smooth collaboration among all the departments. 

 

If someone wants to study entrepreneurship what should they do and what is the scope of entrepreneurship in Pakistan given the current economic conditions in Pakistan?

There are many universities in Pakistan these days which are offering courses in the field of entrepreneurship. This is a great avenue to explore if one is interested. Like I previously said, in this day and age of the internet there are unlimited learning resources available online which they can also avail. Look at what other people are doing across the globe, learn from them. Exposure is the best way to open your mind to possibilities which can be taken up. Despite economic challenges, Pakistan has a lot of possibility for entrepreneurship. While there are risks in terms of the current financial situation of the state, if your idea is truly unique and strongly appeals to a customer base then it can be successful. 

 

What are the things that you think keep potential social entrepreneurs from succeeding? What could the government or society do to encourage social entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship as field has tremendous relevance in a country like Pakistan. It’s a very sustainable manner in which we can begin to address the development issues which plague our country. It is important for all stakeholders such as the government, educational institutes, research organizations, NGOs and existing social enterprises to come together and engage in knowledge sharing of best practices. Only when there is exchange of information can you truly embark on innovation. Furthermore, there is a lack of incubators, especially in smaller cities of Pakistan. The government can incentivize creation of incubators within universities to encourage students to venture into this field. Competitions can also be held at national and provincial levels to allow for exposure to new and innovative ideas. The government can also assist in setting up of trusts or grant making organizations which can help provide these enterprises with their initial capital. We have seen a lot of young individuals coming up with some very strong ideas in the past few years. If these individuals are provided with the right support and the right platform they can truly create a big impact.

Sehrish Khan is a content developer and design resource at Academia Magazine. She can be reached at sehrish.khan@academiamag.com.